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Lights Must Dim for Ventura Cross

To avoid a legal battle, the City Council has added a clause in the site's deed that, after its sale, the icon can be illuminated only by muted ground bulbs.

August 23, 2003|Steve Chawkins | Times Staff Writer

The cross in a hillside park above downtown Ventura has been illuminated with white fluorescent bulbs for some 30 years, but the plug will be pulled once the icon is sold Sept. 22.

By agreeing that the new owner must use more muted ground lights, the Ventura City Council on Thursday night took the final step toward averting a costly lawsuit backed by a national 1st Amendment watchdog group.

As part of their negotiation, prospective plaintiffs supported by Americans United for Separation of Church and State have dropped their threat to sue over the constitutionality of the 24-foot wooden cross. Similar litigation elsewhere has dragged on for years.

"We did everything we could to avoid a costly and ugly legal battle," said Mayor Ray DiGuilio. "A suit would have exacerbated the situation tremendously."

At a contentious hearing July 31, more than 40 speakers denounced demands that the city either take down the landmark cross or sell it to a private party. Convinced it almost certainly would lose in court, the council agreed to take sealed bids for the cross and an acre around it.

Thursday night's action amended the deed a new owner would have to live by.

Vince Chhabria, a San Francisco attorney who donated his time to the would-be plaintiffs, said, "The manner in which this was resolved should be viewed as a model for other communities throughout the nation."

The issue surfaced in March, when three Ventura County residents complained that the cross violated constitutional guarantees against the state favoring a particular religion.

A cross has marked the hilltop for long periods of time for more than two centuries. According to some accounts, the original was placed by Father Junipero Serra, who founded Mission San Buenaventura in 1782.

Although some scholars are dubious about that claim and the current cross dates only from 1941, many residents agreed that the cross had taken on historical value over the years. Some insisted that the city could have prevailed in court by citing the cross's rich history.

Contacted Friday, Stan Kohls of Somis, one of the prospective plaintiffs, said the council's action struck him as "a good compromise."

With a 6-1 vote, the council also allowed the cross's new owner to add a monument consistent with the site's history, such as one honoring the Chumash Indians or Serra. By including that provision, the city distanced itself from the cross's religious significance and treated the hilltop "more like a historical site," Chhabria said.

Councilman Neal Andrews cast the dissenting vote. In an interview, he said the additional restrictions on the new owner were "capricious" and played into what he saw as the prospective plaintiffs' desire to strip public life of religion.

Thirteen prospective bidders have picked up packets but only one has returned the completed paperwork.

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